Robert Ford talks to Ray Suarez

He was America’s man for Syria – until he found it too difficult to justify U.S. policy and resigned

Ray Suarez: We are meeting at a time when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] has taken over Mosul. That's not a small thing. It's not only the second-largest city, but geographically, ethnically and religiously, Mosul is a key city in Iraq. What do you make of this development?

Robert Ford: I think it's extremely serious. Mosul historically, commercially, was right on the trade routes between Aleppo and the Mediterranean, and then points to the east going into Persia and Central Asia. It's a very important city historically and a very large city. It's also very important as a city where Kurdish parts of Iraq come into contact — the fault line with Sunni Arab elements of Iraq — and there's even a Shia population in places like Tal Afar in that province.

A relatively small force of ISIL and related militias took over a big city. The Iraqi army evaporated. What does that tell you about the state of play both in Baghdad and the ongoing efforts to stand up a national institution?

This was something, when I was in Iraq for five years, our team was working on all the time, and it was a tough job then, and it's clearly still a tough job. I don't understand fully the military operations that occurred in Ninawa and in Mosul, but the fighting apparently lasted four or five days, casualties on all sides. But in the end, the Iraqi army was forced to withdraw from the second-largest city in the country.  

That is absolutely a concern. It comes at a difficult time in Iraq too, because there was an election and now the different political blocs are beginning to discuss how to form a new government. So the burst on the scene of the Islamic State into Mosul and into Ninawa really upsets a lot of calculations that touch on the very formation of a government in Baghdad.

The prime minister has asked the parliament for emergency powers.  Now speaking as a private citizen — should he get it?

I think the question would be what will he do with it, because the problems in Iraq are not only military problems. There's a political issue to deal with. For several years, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant was basically under control and was on its back heels because during that time there were Sunni Arabs in places like Ramadi and Fallujah and Mosul and Salah ad Din who were fighting them. It seems they are not fighting them so much now, and they must have some political reasons for not fighting them. So it's important, as we do this formation of a new government in Baghdad, that the concerns of the Sunni Arab community be addressed so that they can be remobilized to help put down this Islamic State in Iraq threat, which really is a threat not just to the Shia of Iraq but also to Kurds. And they're vicious. They’re brutal with their own Sunni Arab brethren, so they are a threat to all of the communities.

Ray Suarez in the studio with Robert Ford.

The United States spent a lot of time, a lot of treasure, a lot of blood in Iraq and is now watching across oceans and continents as the country seems to disintegrate. Why is this happening?

There's still an element of disunity, politically, within Iraq itself — still divisions between the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs and the Shia. These are not things that you can paper over. They have to be dealt with, perhaps gradually, perhaps slowly, but there has to be progress. Fixing political problems is a little like riding a bicycle. You don’t necessarily have to go very fast, but you do have to keep moving. You have to maintain credibility by always moving at least a little bit. As they look forward in Baghdad and setting up a new government after the elections, a reform program, I think, will be an essential element to address the concerns of the different communities. All of them have reasons to be afraid. The Shia have been attacked many times. The Kurds just suffered an attack. So all of the communities are afraid. They need to come together to agree on a way to address some of the underlying political issues in the country. At the same time, they deal militarily on the ground.

After decades as a diplomat speaking for the government that you served, are you still getting used to the idea that you can talk for yourself? Tell me what you really think.

Absolutely. It is important, as we look at these issues, to understand what governments are doing and then to be able to comment on them. Hopefully it provides some understanding both to officials and to private American citizens. I do hope people watching the program understand the threat the Islamic State poses not just to people in Mosul or people in Baghdad but especially with the vacuum that has opened up in eastern Syria. We now have a large space of territory. Historically in Arab history, it was sort of one desert entity called al-Jazeera, but that's now controlled largely by this extremist Islamic State group. Our experience in places like Somalia and Yemen and Mali and Afghanistan is a warning that they can use that open space to bring in people, to train to prepare for operations outside al-Jazeera, outside Syria and Iraq, whether it be against targets in Western Europe or North America, in the Middle East. It is really a danger to everyone.

In Syria, once it was clear that Bashar al-Assad meant to stay, that when this is all over, will still be president of Syria — was there any other way this could have gone for the determined opposition?

It's a question that I ask myself all the time, to be honest. When I was in Syria in 2011 and the peaceful protest movement started, they actually did not immediately demand that President Assad resign or quit the political scene. It started over some police mistreatment of some children in a place called Dara in southern Syria. The local protesters there simply wanted the authorities to be held accountable. Unfortunately, one of those authorities was a cousin of President Assad. While he removed him, he didn't punish him in any way. So the regime then resorted to force, escalated to where the opposition, which had started very peaceably, began to shoot back, really in self-defense.

As I look back on the last couple of years, there is an extremist element in the opposition, but it wasn't there right at the beginning. It wasn't very strong right at the beginning. There was a competition between the more moderate elements and more extreme elements, and the moderate elements, frankly, were not well funded. The extremist elements had financing coming from different parts of region, from the Gulf, from Europe. The moderates didn't have that, so they couldn't recruit.  

And when you're talking about a civil war, when you are talking about groups forming, it is about recruitment. And the extremists, unfortunately, were much better at recruitment. Had there been more help to the moderates earlier on, I think the recruitment by the extremists would have been more limited and hence their influence.

Was it clear at the time, though? I spoke to policymakers who looked at the array of forces. It was quite a range of people who were beginning to line up against Assad. Some of them were unsavory characters. Some of them were talking the democratic game but had information in their past that might not be a great résumé for receiving American help. Was it clear who to help? How the help would be used and that it wouldn't eventually come back to bite the United States, which has a bad history with just that kind of aid?

I take the point we don't always choose very well in our intervention in Iraq. People we supported in 2003 is a case in point, and I accept that. I have two comments on that, though, Ray. First, I think there were some credible people on the ground who were not extremist fighters and whom we came to know reasonably well during the first half of 2012, and I think they at least should have been given a chance. And second, the alternative of standing back and watching also has not served our interests very well. What in fact has happened is the extremists have succeeded in implanting themselves in a very deep way in the Syrian opposition. They now control large swaths of northern and eastern Syria, and standing back and not helping forces that are willing to fight them also doesn't work. And so I don't say this is easy, and I don't say this automatic, but I say that the alternative of doing nothing is even worse. And so I think we need to roll up our sleeves — we need to sit down with opposition group leaders and explain to them what we're willing to support, what we are not willing to support, put conditions down, and I do mean conditions, and then judge them on the basis of their acts on the ground, not just what they say in some YouTube video. What are they doing on the ground? And we have a pretty good ability to track that.

People who want to help Syrians, people who want to see the end of this story be the departure of Assad, looked at some of these forces, traveled to Istanbul and spoke of the coalition of opposition forces and came back scratching their heads. Frankly in some cases, it was disorganized — no political program, unclear lines of responsibility and leadership. Was the opposition doing itself a lot of favors during that time when we were looking around for how to involve ourselves?

I have met with the opposition, the political opposition leadership based in Turkey. I met them many, many times. And I have high regard for their dedication and their sincerity. I do think it is important that they argue less about leadership of the organization amongst themselves and that they focus a great deal of attention on what's happening inside the country.

I don't think their being in Istanbul at this point is useful. I think they would be much more effective were they better implanted on the ground inside Syria. Because what's inside Syria? There are a lot of very dedicated activists who are struggling to keep clean water running an hour or two a day in towns where regime forces withdrew long ago. They're struggling to keep hospitals open a couple of hours a day where the regime hasn't provided medical help to anyone for years. They're struggling to keep schools open. They're struggling to have police, so there's an element of law and order, struggling to have a court system operate.

Those people are there. They are doing that right now, today. That's happening. The political opposition leadership in Istanbul needs to be tied into that. They need to be supportive. They don't need to try to micromanage it. Because I don't think the people inside Syria are going to be micromanaged that way. That's another thing that's come out of what they themselves call a revolution. There's a new level of decentralization in the way Syrians manage themselves. But the opposition certainly, especially if they want more assistance from us, are also going to have to implement some changes among their own ranks.

We need to sit down with opposition group leaders and explain to them what we’re willing to support, what we are not willing to support. Put conditions down and then judge them on the basis of their acts on the ground, not just what they say in some YouTube video.

Robert Ford

former U.S. ambassador to Syria

Was the Obama administration informed by a certain risk aversion and war weariness that comes out of that part of the world and our experience in the 21st century?

I don't think it's just the Obama administration. Last September I went up to Capitol Hill many times with other members of the administration to talk to the Congress about the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21 and that that had crossed a red line and that the United States needed to respond specifically but with force. And I have to tell you that although there were some members of the United States Senate who were supportive, there were many who were not supportive.  

And in the House of Representatives, it was a real uphill battle. There were some very contentious hearings. Some involved Secretary of State John Kerry. It's not just the Obama administration that's been careful about how to react to Syria. There's a real hesitation among large segments of Congress.  

I live in Baltimore. I don't live in Washington. When I talk to people in my neighborhood, in my church and Baltimore, they're very reluctant to get involved in Syria. It is important for people to understand the stakes. It is really important for Americans to understand there's a real and growing terrorism problem in Syria and now very visibly in the last few days also in Iraq.

You have been very critical of United States policy toward Syria over the last several years, talking about missed opportunities, misreadings of the situation on the ground. Now that we are where we are, for better or worse, what's the U.S. play from here on out?

The best solution for us, for the Americans, is to deal with this terrorism threat that is an immediate problem. A young man from Florida apparently blew himself up in a suicide car attack in Syria. One day, if even only 1, 2, 3 percent of  Western country citizens go back to their home countries and do bad things, we're going to have a problem because there are thousands of foreign fighters now inside Syria fighting in this civil war. So our best and most immediate thing is to address that terrorism problem. However, the people that are fighting the Islamic State inside Syria are the Free Syrian Army, first and foremost. That's why I strongly advocate identifying reliable groups — we have a pretty good idea who some of them might be — and then getting them the wherewithal. That can be cash and ammunition. That's what the extremists originally used to recruit people. But it could also be weapons so that they can hit Syrian airports, because these helicopters are dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas. If there was a way to put those airports out of commission so that they could no longer be used for those kind of air raids, that would jolt the Syrian military's confidence and maybe help us get back to a negotiating table. So really, we have to deal with the terrorist threat, but we also need to get to a negotiating table so we can get a new Syrian government that will be able to rally all Syrians, supporters of the regime and the opposition, rally all of them against this Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant threat. 

The Syrian conflict implicated places far beyond the Middle East. The United States has its positions that it's taken — intervened very heavily on the side of getting the chemical weapons out of there. China has a stated position. Russia has longtime alliances with the Damascus government. Iran has interests that are being expressed right now. There's the Sunni-Shia rift and an interesting wild card in the states of the Gulf. They're small. They're rich. They're run by small leadership circles and are able to independently, without having to worry about voters and parliaments, make large bets, one way or the other. What kind of influence have they had in the shifting alliances, the supply of rebel armies and also this struggle among Tehran, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and other places?

Well, your question is spot on, right on the mark. I have been talking a lot about what to do about the grounds inside Syria and how to manage that. But there is the other element of this, which is the regional situation, where Syria now, for better or for worse, is a civil war, but it's also a regional proxy war, where Iran is helping their ally inside the Syrian government, Assad, and countries that don't like Assad, like Saudi Arabia, or that are staunchly pro-Sunni, the Sunni sect of Islam, like the Turks, are helping the opposition to Assad. So as part of any agreement that comes out of a negotiation, absolutely countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Iran and then, more broadly, Russia, which certainly has interest in Syria is a player — all of them are also going to have to be brought on board with whatever negotiated deal there is. In a perfect world, those outside players, those outside countries like Russia, like Iran, like Saudi Arabia, like Turkey, would help get to the negotiation and would help make the negotiation to create a new government, and they would make that negotiation succeed. That's what we were hoping for at the Geneva peace talks about Syria in January and February, but unfortunately, the Russians, who we had put a great deal of faith in, either were unable or unwilling to get the Syrian government to discuss a transition government. The secretary-general of the United Nations’ invitation to the Geneva peace talks specifically said it was to discuss and negotiate standing up a new transition government. The Syrian government refused to do that once it got to Geneva, and the Russians were unable to convince the Syrian government to alter that stance.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter